The Call of Levi and the Community of Disciples (Mark 2:13-17)

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on February 25, 2021

In this week’s passage, Jesus again is walking by the Sea of Galilee.  A crowd gathers, and in the midst of teaching the crowd, Jesus calls to Levi, a tax collector sitting at his tax booth.  “Follow me,” Jesus says, and Levi does (2:13-14).  Later on, perhaps that same day, Jesus has dinner at Levi’s house.  At this dinner with Jesus are “many tax collectors and sinners” alongside “Jesus and his disciples” (2:15), and then Mark lets us know that “there were many who followed him” (v.15).

 

Three things to note about this passage.  First, the similarities between the calling of Levi and the calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John (1:17-18) are hard to miss.  Both happen along the Sea of Galilee; in both Jesus approaches people in the midst of their more usual work (fishing, tax collecting) and calls them to follow; in both stories, those called immediately leave their places of work; and both scenes are followed by Jesus entering the home of the called. 

 

Clearly, we are meant to make some connection here: Levi has a relationship to Jesus that is like that of Simon, James, John, and Andrew.  What is odd, however, is that after this brief episode, we never hear from Levi again.  Nowhere else is he mentioned, unlike the four fishermen, at least three of whom appear prominently elsewhere in the Gospel (9:2, for example).  What happens to Levi?  The honest answer is that we don’t know.  Does he remain in and around his home near the Sea of Galilee?  Or does he continue to follow Jesus through his Galilean ministry and on to Jerusalem?[1]  It is worth noting that Levi is not mentioned in the “twelve apostles” named in 3:13-19.  Mark, as he often does, leaves some of the work to our imaginations.

 

Second, it’s commonly known that tax collectors were nobody’s favorite citizens and that they were social outcasts, though they would’ve been economically secure outcasts.  Levi is one such.  He’s a local customs official collecting minor, every day taxes; he’s not auditing big landholders.  Capernaum, where Levi works, is near a border between two administrative districts, and so Levi at his tax booth is like somebody collecting tolls at a toll road between states or counties, or perhaps someone charging vendors by the pound to sell their wares.[2]  He would most likely have been appointed by a Roman puppet official, like King Herod.  As such, Levi (a Jew) is actively complicit in the suffering of the occupied Galilean Jews experience at the hand of Rome.[3]

 

Given the kind of tax collector Levi is, Mark has subtly inserted some tension into the community around Jesus.  Again, Levi isn’t auditing bigwigs, but collecting taxes and tributes from regular people.  In Galilee, this means taxing the work of fishermen like Simon and Andrew, James and John.  Fishing and other industries connected to the Sea of Galilee (a great big lake) were central elements of the Galilean economy and were crucial for folks’ material security.  The material security of low to mid-level tax collectors like Levi is in turn dependent on his taxing them: Levi’s income depended on his collecting more than what was prescribed by the governing authorities.  In other words, Levi’s bosses told him how much he had to collect and give to them, and Levi himself kept anything above what he collected.  This was his source of income. 

 

You can see why tax collectors were not favorite invites at potlucks.  Levi is appointed by Herod Antipas, who was in turn appointed by the Roman Emperor Augustus.[4]  And Jesus calls Levi, most likely with Simon and Andrew, James and John and maybe other fishermen standing nearby.  Jesus calls the very man who has been collecting their hard-earned money for a foreign invading power, and moreover, Levi has been collecting more than necessary so as to keep himself fed.  This is the stuff of which Boston Tea Parties are made. 

 

We know the Pharisees are troubled by Jesus’ consorting with folks like Levi (2:16-17).  But do we really believe that Jesus’ fishermen followers aren’t also grumbling a little bit about Jesus’ including him?

 

Third, Jesus goes to Levi’s house for dinner.  Notice the groups of people who are named: tax collectors, sinners, and disciples, who are “many.”  This is the first time Mark uses the word “disciples” in his Gospel.  This follows quickly after Mark’s introducing a group called “the crowd” (2:4), which appears again at the beginning of our passage this week (2:13).  And this use of “disciples” happens before Mark singles out the twelve Jesus names apostles (3:13-19).  Crowd, disciples, twelve apostles.

 

The point is that the group of people around Jesus is like any other large group of people with an identified leader: the group is big, messy, and mostly lacks clear definition, though groups within groups are certainly discernible.  The determining factor of some of those groups within groups is their relative proximity to Jesus. 

 

We might say the following of this group of people with Jesus at their center: “the crowd” are a big group of Galilean folk who come to Jesus for healing and teaching and follow Jesus’ for varying lengths of time.  The “crowd” will turn out to be rather fickle (15:6-15).

 

Within “the crowd” there is a smaller but still large group of “disciples” who have a higher level of commitment to following Jesus than the masses in general.  Given Levi’s individual call story and Jesus’ presence at his house, Levi is a disciple.  Furthermore, the “disciples” is a group that includes both men and women, even though the only call stories we have by this point focus on men like Levi, Simon, Andrew, James, and John.  The language of “following” used of Levi is the same language used of Galilean women in Mark 15:40-41.  (See note 1.).  Jesus will also make explicit that his ‘family’ are those who do the will of God, including women (Mark 3:33-35).  The disciples who follow are “many” (2:15), and so we must conclude that the majority of them remain anonymous and unreported in the Gospel.

 

Within the group named “disciples” there are twelve men singled out by Mark who are called “apostles” (3:13-19).[5]  And even within the twelve apostles, it’s clear that there’s an inner circle of Peter, James, and John (9:2; 14:33).  It is worth noting that the twelve apostles include a betrayer (3:19) and that the inner-circle of Peter, James, and John are far from worthy of unqualified approval (8:33; 10:35-41).

 

We’ll learn more about all those figures and scenes at a later date.  For now, the point is that this Levi episode forces us to conclude that Jesus’ “disciples” is a large, mixed group which is open to “sinners and tax collectors,” and that, when read alongside other texts in the Gospel, must include women.  There is no such thing as “Jesus’ twelve disciples” in Mark’s Gospel, and the idea that Jesus’ disciples are all male is objectively false based on Mark’s testimony.

 

What do we draw from all this?  That Levi gets his own call story but then promptly disappears from the narrative is strong evidence that Jesus’ “disciples’ is a wider group than the twelve men we usually imagine. 

 

Furthermore, that Jesus calls this tax collector in Capernaum, the home town of fishermen like Simon and Andrew, suggests that Jesus actively seeks to include in the community around him people whom current members of the community would’ve disliked—and not just in the abstract, but particularly.  To us, Levi is a ‘tax collector’ in an abstract way, but for fishermen in Capernaum, Levi was their actual tax collector.  Levi just isn’t a newcomer to the group of disciples; he’s a newcomer a lot of the current disciples probably don’t want around.  This suggests that a certain level of intra-disciple tension is normal and perhaps even necessary in the community around Jesus. 

 

Next, the group of disciples is a diverse subset of “the crowd,” a subset with a measure of real commitment to following Jesus both literally across the countryside and/or also more in terms of following a way of life, even if they remain behind in their home towns.  This group either includes and/or at least freely mingles with “sinners.”[6]  The presence of so many “sinners” would accentuate the relational tension within the community of disciples noted above (Levi and fishermen).  This would seem to make repentance necessary for community cohesion.

 

On the other hand, it is worth noting that nowhere in this story does Mark suggest that repentance is required of Levi or the other tax collectors and sinners who are there.  This may be a significant and purposeful omission on Mark’s part,[7] and this is a new interpretive possibility for me.  I am not yet sold on the idea that Mark deliberately omits repentance in this scene in which Jesus is at dinner with tax collectors and sinners.  Given the centrality of repentance at the Gospel’s outset, in both the proclamations of John the Baptist and Jesus himself (1:4-5 and 15, respectively), it seems to me repentance can be assumed as a major part of Jesus’ teaching.  The inclusion of Levi amongst those whom he taxed seems to me further evidence that repentance would be fundamental, even at the practical level of community cohesion.

 

But it is true that repentance is nowhere mentioned here, nor is it clear that Jesus is teaching during dinner at all, with the exception of his exchange with the Pharisees (2:17).  It may be that the omission of repentance has to do with Mark using “sinners” here in a narrowly conditioned way, if that is indeed the case (note 5).  Or it may be that the omission of repentance from this story simply means that repentance isn’t something that happens before you get to be with Jesus, but while you are with Jesus, and that things like congenial meals together are part and parcel of a life of repentance.  I find this more likely.  After all, if Jesus is not calling the righteous but sinners, then calling the sinners to what?

 

Again, I am inclined to believe that repentance can be assumed to be a primary theme of Jesus’ discourse and teaching, but I have to admit that my interpretation of this episode seems to me probable but not certain.  I invite your own reflections on what, exactly, might be the nature of Jesus’ conversations with Levi and the other tax collectors and sinners with whom he is eating.

 

There’s more to say about this passage, especially about the Pharisees and Jesus as a “physician,” but we’ll save that for another day.  Thank you for reading.

 

God’s Peace,

 

 

Fr. Daniel+

 

 

 

[1] The “follow” language used of Levi and the “many” in 2:14-15 is the same as that used of the Galilean women in 15:40-41.  Clearly, the women in 15:40-41 have been there from the beginning even though they’re not mentioned early in the Gospel (with the possible exception of Simon’s mother-in-law in 1:29-31).  The opposite is true of Levi: he is mentioned early and given his own call story, but disappears from the narrative afterwards.  It is perhaps best not to make too much of this, but I can’t help but see Levi and the Galilean women forming kinds of discipleship bookends for the Gospel in chapters 2 and 15, respectively.

[2] In an example of biblical confusion, the two neighboring administrative districts are each governed by somebody named Herod: Herod Antipas, who governs Levi’s town of Capernaum, and Herod Philip.

[3] For this whole paragraph, see Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (20th anniversary edition, 10th printing, Dec 2017) Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, 156-157.

[4] For this and the preceding paragraph, see Warren Carter’s commentary, Mark, volume 42 in the Wisdom Commentary series edited by Barbara E. Reid, OP and Sarah J. Tanzer (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2019), 48.

[5] As a close study of Paul’s letters will make clear, however, the “apostles” are not an exclusively male group in the earliest Church.  See Junia in Romans 16:7.  Mark’s confining the twelve apostles to a group of men likely has significant meaning for his generation of Christians (around 66-70 CE), but it alone is not determinative evidence for who “apostles” were in the most immediate generation following Jesus’ earthly ministry.

[6] It’s beyond the scope of this piece, but Mark’s use of “sinners” here may not have the broad, ‘everyone is a sinner’ kind of meaning you and I might use, but instead might be a kind of code for particular kinds of sinners who were for whatever reason socially outcast in a manner akin to tax collectors.

[7] Warren Carter’s view.  See Carter, page 51, noted above.

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